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Interview with Prof. Melanie Freeze: What happened in Washington on January 6th, and what lessons did we learn?

Last week, I spoke with Professor Melanie Freeze of the Political Science department over Zoom to get her perspective on the violence in Washington. Prof. Freeze teaches American Politics and studies political parties, motivated reasoning and polarization. I hoped she would give me a deeper understanding about what is now happening in Congress and answer the more difficult questions about the legacy of pro-Trump terrrorism on public trust of institutions and the threat of White Supremacy in America. 

Personally, I have felt both numb and overwhelmed since the pro-Trump terrorists stormed Congress. The efforts to impeach Trump by Democrats offer little consolation to anyone, and many are left with more questions that require reading beyond the headlines. I also feel a need to derive some type of lesson from the trauma in Washington. Freeze took on my questions eagerly, but she encourages critical engagement with her responses and, importantly, says that she hopes readers will “take what I say with a grain of salt.” 

Naomi Lopez: Biden’s inauguration is on January 20, less than a week away. There’s been a swift movement to impeach Trump, however, following the political violence in the Capitol. What is the message the Democratic party and opponents of Trump are trying to send with voting to impeach? 

Melanie Freeze: I think the message is responding to the use of conspiracy theories and misinformation in President Trump’s rhetoric. This misinformation is targeting core institutions of the democratic process, and there’s a long-term danger of underming functioning democratic institutions. Trump’s rhetoric could come back and hurt both parties and all democratic processes. That is one of the tipping points. 

Trump’s misinformation led to violence, which should be condemned, but it’s violence in a certain context. It’s violence that is trying to interfere with legal processes designed to manage conflicts peacefully. 

Q: What is the precedent the Democractic Party is attempting to set regarding what presidential behavior merits impeachment? 

A: The impeachment process does not have much legal precedent, so it is definitely a political process. It should, as a result, be filtered within the lens of political agendas and rational motivations of individual actors. Perhaps, demagoguery that indirectly incites violence by appeals to misinformation is being condemned.

 Also, it’s a statement against falsely undermining legitimate institutions. You can’t say anything you want, and it has to be grounded in reality and evidence. On the one hand, impeachment sends a message about violence, misinformation and the activation of white supremacy. It says that these activities are not acceptable. 

On the other hand, the impeachment is also a process shaping future political processes and the 2024 election. The impeachment draws on the 14th amendment, establishing that those engaged in insurrection are banned from office. If successfully convicted, Trump will not be able to run for office again.  

Q: How will this impeachment affect public trust in the political institutions? Will it lead to Trump supporters being suspicious of democratic systems?

A: I think that’s an interesting question: will this process increase the legitimacy of political institutions? Or, through using the impeachment process and preventing Trump from participating in the 2024 presidential election, will that lead to further degradation of institutions? Some people may feel like their choice has been taken away and claim it’s a bypass of the electoral process. I don’t have a clear answer, and it can be spun many ways. This is one plausible outcome.

Also, public trust will be filtered by partisan predispositions and worldviews. For those who agree with the more Democratic side, this will bolster their trust. Those who disagree and align themselves with Trump’s side will probably mistrust institutions more. However, I would put a big modifier on that and say this is not a purely partisan process at this point. It’s bipartisan, which is entirely different from the last impeachment process. 

Q: During the impeachment vote, 10 Republicans joined Democrats and rallied against Trump. Why is this important and why did they vote against the president?

A: There were 10 Republicans to vote against Trump, and this is massive in a polarized environment. There might not be enough bipartisanship to actually impeach Trump, but there is enough bipartisan effort to turn this into a stronger message beyond the partisan lens. Interestingly, the 10 representatives were not all moderates but also far-right leaning. This is an interesting case of intra-party conflict: there’s the mainstream and the outside faction at war. I don’t think Republicans actually want to convict Trump, maybe some, but I think they want to elevate different factional interests. It is the establishment party versus the outsiders, which are individualists and a Trump-centric party. The Republicans who voted to impeach want to balance the line of expressing disapproval for this Trump party and move back to an ideological and principle-centered party.

The timing of this event also helps. It’s post-election, so there’s less incentive to rally around the party for election time. Interestingly, Trump’s ability to punish people through Twitter has been taken away, so his powers are fewer. Trump has fewer resources because he lost the election, and lawmakers may be avoiding association with this loss. 

Q: Who were the rioters and what are their motives and political objectives? 

A: It is not a monolithic group of individuals and there’s lots of different agendas. The rhetoric can activate individuals who feel frustrated because their party lost, but it might also activate people who have a deep suspicion of all elite institutions. Also, it definitely activated white supremacists. It is important to recognize the riots and insurrections were an amalgamation of different goals and factions. Intraparty factions are at play here, for example. There’s a toss up of who gets to shape this big tent party and who will get to determine its focus.

Q: What tools does Biden have to cope with the fallout of the riots, especially potential loss of public trust moving forward? Do you think these tools will be satisfactory for helping the public move on from this trauma? 

A: One of the biggest tools of the president is that they’re a unitary actor. The president has the ability to go public and has a bully pulpit to connect with the nation as a whole. An interesting side effect is that Trump has maintained front-and-center dominance of the media and overshadowed Biden’s agenda. This is an important period for Biden, and the agenda-setting space and attention has been taken away. It feels like there is not a transition, but once we move past this, he should be a more salient actor. However, Biden is not as charismatic as Trump or Obama, so his tools could be more limited. But, maybe the public wants “boring sleepy Joe” and a calm and bipartisan figure. It’ll depend on his powers of persuasion.

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